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Four moments when 9/11 might have been stopped

Commission reports reveal how close US intelligence was to thwarting the Al Qaeda plot

By Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 19, 2004


In January 2000, US intelligence tracked two suspected Islamic terrorists, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, to a terror summit of sorts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Agents knew that at least one of the men - Hazmi - had a visa that would allow him to enter the US.

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Unsurprisingly, the CIA wanted both of them followed after they left the meeting and traveled to their next stop, Bangkok.

But the alert to Bangkok agents arrived too late, and the suspects disappeared into the teeming city. Days later the pair flew out unimpeded for Los Angeles. They lived quietly in southern California for more than a year, preparing for an upcoming role: hijackers in the Sept. 11 plot.

Would the worst terror attacks in the nation's history have been prevented if Messrs. Midhar and Hazmi hadn't slipped away in Bangkok? Maybe not. But in hindsight that moment in early 2000, and three others in the summer of 2001 when investigators came close to nailing down their connections with Al Qaeda, were perhaps the closest US intelligence ever came to disrupting Al Qaeda's impending US hits.

Such haunting "what-ifs" haven't necessarily been the focus of the Sept. 11 commission's work. The public hearings that have riveted Washington in recent weeks have instead been aimed at identifying systemic faults in the nation's intelligence apparatus. Commission members are likely to recommend soon some kind of sweeping bureaucratic change - possibly the establishment of a cabinet-level intelligence czar.

But from staff reports and bits of testimony it is possible to piece together a vivid picture of the pre-9/11 struggles of front-line agents against an enemy they only dimly understood. That struggle failed. But seeing how close agents came to thwarting the plot, it is possible to believe that victory is achievable - that another attack is not somehow fated to succeed.

"It is important that the 9/11 commission provide as complete a document as possible," says Jim Walsh, a security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "These are the only people in the US who will ever have the opportunity to see all the documents and hear all the people testify firsthand."

Besides the missteps at the time of the Kuala Lumpur meetings, agents came close to cracking the case three additional times in 2001. After the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 US service members lost their lives, FBI investigators worked with Yemeni officials to identify the culprits.

The mysterious 'Khallads'

One of the conspirators of the Cole attack told an FBI investigator in January 2001 that his boss was "Khallad." That name, which means silver in Arabic, was familiar to the FBI investigator. He'd heard about Khallad from another source, who had told both the FBI and CIA that Khallad was close to Osama bin Laden. Khallad's name had also come up during the investigation into the 1998 bombings of the two US embassies in Africa.

The FBI investigator obtained a photograph of the boss and forwarded it to the FBI/CIA joint source, who confirmed that it was indeed Khallad bin Attash, a high-level Al Qaeda operative. As some of this information flowed into the CIA's bin Laden unit in the Counterterrorist Center, its officers began to wonder if Khallad wasn't the same person as Khalid al-Midhar, the possible Al Qaeda operative identified at the 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

They sent surveillance photos of that January meeting to the same joint source. The source was not able to identify Mr. Midhar, but said he was 90 percent certain the other person in the photos was Khallad bin Attash.

The CIA officers by now realized that Khallad and Midhar were not only different people, but that this higher-up Al Qaeda official and foot soldier were somehow linked. Even though the FBI and CIA used the same source to identify the men in the photos, the agencies did not talk with each other and find a way to fit their separate pieces together.